Wednesday, 25 April 2018

You want to make food more expensive? For the children? Give us a break.

It is a rare consensus when all the leaders of Britain's political parties get together to agree on something important:
Among other proposals, they call for the tax system to be “used to make healthy food cheaper and discourage unhealthy choices both at home and on our high streets”.

The leaders also say the levels of sugar, calories, salt and fat in junk food should be lowered overall, while more training should be given to medical staff to help people with nutrition.
In a world where there are a thousand problems ranging from poverty and family breakdown to murders and robberies, all our political leaders can manage to agree on is that food should be made more expensive. And who does this affect - has somebody mentioned to these sanctimonious fussbuckets that it will be the poorest in society who will be hurt most by this policy?

We're told that we need more expensive food because obesity is one of the greatest health challenges of our time. Bigger than AIDs, more challenging than cancer, more cursed than malaria, more frightening than dementia. Yes folks, you need to pay more for your food because, damn it, you're all a bunch of lard buckets and the government needs to force you to eat properly. It's for the children.

Yes. The Children. Those children whose mums and dads won't be able to buy as much food as they did before because a self-righteous bunch of snobbish know-alls marshalled by a fat TV chef have decided this will be good for you. I know they'll tell you it's only "junk food" but this isn't true - it'll be bread and cheese and butter and bacon and cereals and burgers and orange juice and...over half of what you buy to make up a balanced diet for you family is what these tinpot health dictators call HFSS (high in fat, sugar and salt). And these jumped up nannies want it all to be more expensive - so your children (who almost certainly aren't fat) don't turn into obese whales and die before you do.

Worse, the plans aren't just about making the everyday food you feed your family more expensive, they'll make it taste less good by forcing the manufacturers to take out the sugar, salt and fat that gives it the great taste.

There is no obesity crisis. It is a manufactured moral panic based on flimsy (I'm being kind here) evidence that we're all getting fatter and fatter. We aren't - we're on average a bit heavier than we were in the 1980s but this is not unhealthy (it could be argued it's actually healthy). The figures are skewed by an ageing population - middle age spread is, as we all know, a reality - and haven't risen for a decade.

I'm probably shouting into the void here but we really need to tell Jamie Oliver, Hugh Thingy-Wotsit, Channel 4, the BBC, leaders of political parties who'll do anything for a cheap headline in the Guardian (every snobby fussbucket's favourite rag), and the massed hordes of public health campaigners to go take a running jump off a very high cliff. We don't need a load of rules telling food manufacturers what they can and cannot put in what they sell (other than ones to make sure it's safe). We don't need a bunch of prissy middle-class media sorts going around telling ordinary people - on the basis of no knowledge or expertise - what they can and cannot buy to feed their children. And, above all, we don't need a load more new taxes designed specifically to make food - food ffs, the basis of life - more expensive. Just leave us alone will you.


Tuesday, 24 April 2018

Something happened - and that something was the free market

Man's natural state is grinding poverty:
Among economists and anthropologists, this is “settled science.” Economists left and right might bicker over minor details, but they agree that poverty is man’s natural environment. As economist Todd G. Buchholz puts it, “For most of man’s life on earth, he has lived no better on two legs than he had on four.” Nobel Prize–winning economist Douglass C. North and his colleagues write in Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History that “over the long stretch of human history before 1800, the evidence suggests that the long-run rate of growth of per capita income was very close to zero.”
For tens or thousands of years nearly all men lived in that grinding poverty. There were little flickers of light showing what was possible - in China, in Baghdad, in Florence - and then, bang, we suddenly and sustainably got rich, dragged ourselves out of poverty, and created the wonders of our modern world from dishwashers to the internet, from recorded music to space travel.

And that bang? It was the liberal enlightenment, the idea that creativity and innovation wasn't the preserve of aristocratic patronage but was for everyone. It was what we sneeringly called the middle class - whether suited banker or white van man - that made that great noise of human improvement. It wasn't government, it wasn't posh landowners, it wasn't socialism, it wasn't a cumulative process of incremental improvement - human betterment is a consequence of freedom - free speech, free enterprise, free assembly, free worship, free trade. Improvement came because we decided people shouldn't have to have permission from their 'betters' if they wanted to try something out.

So if you want to limit freedom - stop folk exchanging freely, prevent people from saying what they wish, halt people's right to gather together, limit what they can believe in and worship - any of these things and you offer future humanity a worse world. Above all, if you think free markets are a bad idea and need limiting, regulating and controlling by our betters, then you offer future generations a less wealthy, less healthy and less happy world.


Sunday, 22 April 2018

ID checks are officious, mostly unnecessary, mistrustful and damage community.

When I was a young teenager, my Mum would give me the money to go and buy her some cigarettes - twenty Sovereign. It made sense because the newsagent and tobacconist was a mile away in Elmers End and I was going there on my bike to do a paper round. I'm sure I'm not the only person from my generation who bought cigarettes for their Mum or Dad.

These days, of course, this wouldn't happen. We live in an age of mistrust brought about by the decline of community, by the shopkeeper not knowing who is who in the little local community and, worse, frightened that if he doesn't ID every second customer some official is going to step in, throwing the book. Until a year ago I'd never been asked for any ID except for such things as getting a driving licence or passport (or overseas where they're a lot keener on ID stuff) - certainly not for any purchase, never in a shop or a pub or a bank.

The first demand for ID was in a London hotel. We'd booked, pre-paid and were staying one night - the receptionist requested a photo ID. I didn't have any on me and, after a brief (and smiling) exchange no ID was proffered and none required. It was, however, an indication of our society's mistrust - I could be someone other than the person who'd rung up, booked a hotel, paid for a room on a specified night. Unlikely but you never know...

We've become ID mad - supermarket checkout operators wear little badges telling me that if I look under 25 they'll ask for some proof of age if I try to buy a bewildering range of goods - fags, booze, fireworks, glue, knives, scissors, marches, cigarette lighters, drain cleaner and (so I've been told) large bottles of sugar rich fizzy pop. Operators demand ID to go in a bar, to attend a concert, to conduct a bank transaction - a million-and-one ordinary everyday actions that back when we trusted people were done without this officious rigmarole.

This ever expanding requirement to prove who you are so as to go about an ordinary life isn't a good thing. We're not safer, healthier or happier as a result of having to show some form of ID to a checkout operator or a doorman. Indeed, I've a feeling that this is a transfer of trust from the wisdom and judgement of people to a dumb pice of paper or plastic with a bad photo on it. And that in doing this we undermine community, the idea that nearly everyone, nearly all of the time behaves sensibly and doesn't require some self-appointed agent of the state (usually operating out of fear that not checking people's identity will bring down the wrath of that state) to second guess this truth.

As a conservative, the idea of community and the trust that comes from within that community is central to what we feel about the world. The moment we step away from this and say "don't trust anyone buying a bottle of wine or a packet of twenty fags, they might be lying" we lose a little more of that community. Places should be able to police themselves - they did so from time immemorial until we decided that managing drinking, smoking and such wasn't something we could entrust to a small community but needed national - even international - agencies to insist that the rules are enforced (for the children, naturally).

Today that ultimate measure of a community - going down to the local church hall to cast a vote in an election - is the latest ordinary action that is to be subject to ID checks. We're told this is to combat rising electoral fraud (despite the Electoral Commission repeatedly saying voter fraud is rare) - as they concluded "...there is no evidence to suggest that there have been widespread, systematic attempts to undermine or interfere with recent elections through electoral fraud." And remember that the only fraud ID checks might prevent is personation at the polling station, it doesn't prevent false registration, doesn't stop postal voting abuse, and doesn't halt voter intimidation (all of which are more serious problems).

To get this in context, there were over 50 million ballots issued in 2015 and just 34 cases of personation. There were only 481 allegtions of electoral fraud, two-thirds of which were deemed not to be offences. And we want to get Mrs Jones to produce a photo ID when she goes to the village hall in Lower Puddlebury because 0.0009% of ballots led to an allegation (0.0003% an investigation and less than 0.0001% a conviction) of electoral fraud. Worse, because Mrs Jones doesn't drive and hasn't got a passport, she'll have to go and get a special ID card to vote - all to prevent an almost imaginary problem.

We do too many ID checks. They are officious and mostly unnecessary. As conservatives we should remind those who govern us that trust is central to a good society. And that this constant checking up on people is mistrustful, undermines community and is bad for society.


Saturday, 21 April 2018

Is building new retail capacity in suburban Bradford such a good idea?

"We'll get that away," says the council officer about a proposed out-of-town retail centre on the site of a closing leisure centre in South Bradford. So the Odsal District Centre is the future of that part of town? For how long? And is this really the future?

I wonder if this is a false hope brought on by the prospect of a capital receipt (and a pig-headed refusal to consider the site for housing) rather than a genuine engagement with economic reality. And Bradford isn't alone in all this - up and down the country local councils are buying up retail centres, either in the name of regeneration or, more commonly, investment income.

Here's some reality from the US courtesy of the always excellent John Sanphillippo:
This new retail plaza on the side of a Northern California freeway isn’t adding needed capacity. It’s cannibalizing existing retail sales from older shopping centers. There’s a limit to how many shoe stores and kitchenware shops the area population can support. Online sales are cutting in to already slim margins. It won’t be long before this place is hollowed out and half vacant, not least because the chain stores will be offered special incentives to relocate to a new place a few miles away. That’s when city officials and developers will hatch a public private partnership to turn the venue into a “technology park” to lure in some other heavily subsidized scheme that will also prove economically wobbly.

Just down the road in the same town is a premium outlet mall that, not too long ago, was the guarantied-to-succeed cash cow favored by municipal planners. But these things just don’t perform well beyond the first tenant lifecycle, particularly when there’s a parade of similar establishments for a hundred miles in every direction. Meanwhile, this failing mall is in a location with a critical housing shortage. The median home price here is $700,000 and very few homes are on the market. Median rent is $2,900 if you can find a vacancy. Most people can’t.
Right now, investment in new retail capacity, other than for discount supermarkets, is a monumentally stupid idea - even if you've an end user lined up. Just look at what's happening in UK retail - not because of slow economic growth but because the market is changing fast. So far in 2018, 14 listed retailers have failed, 1,236 stores have closed their doors, and 13,176 employees have lost their jobs - in four months. And there's more to come if House of Fraser, New Look and Debenhams performance is anything to go by.

Out in the real world the change appears to be accelerating - "go to Amazon," my wife's friend tells her on a chance encounter at the garden centre searching for outdoor furniture, "they're much cheaper and they've got more choice." The triumph of mail order is almost complete, every day a stream of delivery vans comes through our little estate of thirty-odd houses and flats - clothes, food, furniture, everything a home could want delivered conveniently to the door. And all this is without counting the folk who, for their convenience, collect from Cullingworth's chemist or post office.

It's not that shopping is dead - we're shopping more than ever - but that we can shop with a glass of wine in hand from our sofa while muting the adverts on the telly or pausing the Netflix series we're watching. Why - given all this - would people want to drag themselves to a load of cheap sheds thrown up in suburban Bradford? The retail the will work is that which offers something we can't get from our sitting room - events, socialising, entertainment, reward - and that which is additional to a destination - the shop at the museum, the little boutique of handmade clothes by public square, the cheese stall or deli in some space near the popular restaurant.

What matters, given convenience is now an app on our phone, is leisure and pleasure, place and space. And, in no known universe are out-of-town retail sheds any kind of pleasure-led place, a destination for a trip out. People aren't going to say, "let's go to Odsal Distrct Centre it's so much fun there", yet because of an obsession with short-term value that is what we get. And sadly, in a decade or so, Bradford (and lots of other places) will be asking what to do with a half empty and increasingly redundant retail centre - just as we are with the crumbling district centres build in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.


Thursday, 19 April 2018

If there's a global technology race, Europe is going to lose.

This is clear from an interview in Der Speigel with Pedro Domingos, author of 'The Master Algorithm' (which, we're told sits on Xi Jinping's bookshelf alongside Marx and Mao):
My literary agent told me: "You are going to sell this book all over the world, but not in France and Germany." And that's what happened. "The Master Algorithm" was sold to Japan, China, Taiwan, South Korea. There are Polish and Russian translations. But my agent was right when he said: "The Germans and the French don't like these things."
There still isn't a German translation of the book and it's because the Europeans are terrified of technology's implications:
The picture coming out of Silicon Valley is a very optimistic one, informed by libertarian ideas. The very opposite is true for Europe: I just came back from a conference in Berlin where I was struck by the sheer pessimism. Every other session was about: "Oh, we have to fear this. Who knows what may be going on here?"
This technology - Artificial Intelligence - is our future economy, it is our escape (if Silicon Valley's libertarianism wins over Jinping's autocracy) from being what sociologist C. Wright Mills called The Cheerful Robot back in 1959 (if not it's a world more like Taylorism on steroids - Zamyatin's 'We'). Yet European governments are closing the doors to the idea - from proposals for limits on robots to government access to commercial algorithms the EU and other European governments are set against the idea of a liberal, free market artificial intelligence.

Here in Britain it's not much better with the recent Facebook / Cambridge Analytica sessions, the House of Lords' risible report on AI regulation, the febrile 'we're being spied on by evil capitalists' line of national broadcasters and broadsheets, and a government that can't see how giving the state access to encrypted messaging makes that messaging useless.

We need a debate about the risks and benefits rather than about how we can control the technology - what are the downside risks of unregulated commercial AI set against the upside benefits of giving technology innovators free rein? What, as Domingos comments, is the balance between 'explainability' (this is what the algorithm does) and effectiveness?

Right now Europe, for all its brains and corporate clout, is dragging its heels and, worse, has a government in the EU that is actively opposed to both a liberal US-style technology surge and an autocratic Chinese-style approach. Whoever wins this battle, it isn't going to be Europe.


Wednesday, 18 April 2018

Facebook isn't the bad guy. Facebook makes the world (and our lives) better.

I know, this isn't the received wisdom. We're supposed to believe that Facebook is some sort of evil wall garden created to harvest our 'data' so it can make millions from 'selling that 'data'. I have to be honest here, I think that this is nonsense. For all that we should have protections from abuse, stalkers and so forth, the reality is that we get a huge social benefit from the existence of Facebook (otherwise we wouldn't all - or lots of us - be using it). Here's Alex Tabbarok with the basis for this, seemingly unpopular, opinion:
What could be more ours than our friends? Yet I have hundreds of friends on Facebook, most of whom I don’t know well and have never met. But my Facebook friends are friends. We share common interests and, most of the time, I’m happy to see what they are thinking and doing and I’m pleased when they show interest in what I’m up to. If, before Facebook existed, I had been asked to list “my friends,” I would have had a hard time naming ten friends, let alone hundreds. My Facebook friends didn’t exist before Facebook. My Facebook friendships are not simply my data—they are a unique co-creation of myself, my friends, and, yes, Facebook.
So when some self-appointed and probably self-important person tells you that Facebook should 'pay' to use you 'data' tell them (because this is true) that Facebook have paid us. They paid us by providing us with Facebook, with its social interaction, jokes, daft quizzes, community forums and cat videos. It brilliant. As Alex concluded: "Facebook hasn’t taken our data—they have created it."

And one last point, one I've being making since my direct marketing days back in the 1990s: commercial organisations want information about us (data if you insist) for one reason alone - to sell us stuff. We should be a lot more worried about why government seems to want loads of information about us - they don't want to sell us stuff, they want to control us.


Monday, 16 April 2018

A note on why land values matter...

This is a really splendid building in Bradford city centre:

As you can see it occupies a large footprint, has three stories and an imposing presence (it's also listed and in a conservation area but those details aren't relevant to my point here). It was recently sold at auction where it was listed at £670,000. I've a feeling it might have gone for less than this despite having good sitting tenants. For less than a flat in Southwark you could have all this magnificence!

The thing is that this price reminds me that land values in central Bradford are essentially zero. Imagine that's a cleared site for a second - could you build a three storey office block (even one that's not natural stone and to a high design quality) there for less than £670,000? Of course not.

The building is, however, there and this means it has value. But the sad - and it is sad - truth is that land in Bradford is pretty much valueless even if the buildings currently sitting on that land can be used and can generate some sort of yield. Forgive me for feeling that it's pretty difficult to have a commercially-driven regeneration strategy if the land values are zero or negative.

Maybe we need a different approach? Like the one here